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Iranian athletes had fine performances in China’s southern city of Guangzhou where the 16th edition of the Asian Games, Asiad, recently wrapped.

But a senior Muslim cleric has denounced the participation of Iranian women in the Asian Games, calling it a humiliation and saying women’s sports are a product of the West’s “dirty” culture that should be shunned.

As he has done in the past, President Ahmadinejad took the opposite view – one shared by most Iranians – and praised female athletes from Iran who won medals in the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, which took place November 12 – 27, 2010.

Iran’s strict Islamic rules forbid physical contact between unrelated men and women, and Iranian women are even barred from attending soccer games in which men’s teams are playing.

Although Iranian female athletes take part only in games where there is no physical contact with men, clerics are still opposed.

“That Muslim women get medals in sports games is no dignity but humiliation,” said Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Ali Safi Golpayegani, a prominent cleric in the holy city of Qom. “Dignity is for women who say they don’t participate in the games,” he was quoted as saying in a report Sunday on the hard-line news website hawzahnews.ir.

Golpayegani said women’s games are a creation of Islam’s enemies.

“These games and others like them are creations of enemies so that Muslim women lose their Islamic chastity and dignity,” he was quoted as saying.

Iran won 59 medals – 20 gold, 14 silver and 25 bronze – in this year’s Asian Games. Iran’s female athletes won 14 medals, including one gold in women’s Sanshou.

Ahmadinejad praised Iranian female athletes who took part in the Games, saying the government would do what it could to support female athletes in hopes of winning more medals next time.

Unlike his fellow hard-liners, Ahmadinejad – an ardent soccer fan who once donned a jersey and kicked some balls with the national team – is a supporter of women participating in sports.

In 2006, Ahmadinejad surprised his conservative backers by deciding that women could attend soccer games, but he later gave in to pressure from clerics and dropped that effort.

What do you think? Should Iranian women be allowed to compete in sports?

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